Search engines

Search engines

This resource will explain how search engines work, what you need to be aware of, and how to optimise your searches.

What is a search engine?

A search engine is a piece of software that is designed to search the Internet for information. The Internet is loaded with data in trillions of web pages. To get the information you want without knowing the exact URL is a herculean task. However, thanks to search engines our job is hassle free.

How do search engines work?

The main process behind a search engine can be divided as:

  1. Crawling: A piece of software known as a ‘spider’ or a ‘web crawler’ is used to crawl through countless webpages collecting information like the page title, images, keywords and any other page links.
  2. Indexing: The data retrieved by the spider is then placed in a big database and indexed in a similar way to a library. This data is stored in vast data centers around the world.
  3. Ranking & retrieving: When you submit a search query, the data is retrieved using a specific algorithm that ranks the data based on how relevant it is to your query. The algorithms used vary between search engines, which is why different search engines yield different results even if the query is the same.

Things to be aware of

Filter bubbles

Google search provides you with results that are tailor made for you by tweaking your results based on personal factors including your search history, location, and IP Address. Because of this, you can get trapped in what’s referred to as a ‘filter bubble’, where you are given the information Google thinks you want, rather than the information that is most relevant to your search.

Search engine optimization

Search Engine Optimization’ (SEO) is about making small changes to several parts of a website to boost its ranking in search results, and therefore bring in more visitors (Google 2010). This means that websites can appear at the top of your search results without necessarily being the most relevant to your search, like going to the top rated restaurant in your area and finding out the food is rubbish.

Getting better results from your searches

Use boolean search operators

Boolean search operators are certain symbols or words that are recognised as a function by the search engine, and can be used to further refine your search results. An example of a boolean search operator is enclosing a phrase you are searching in double quotation marks (“”), which returns results that contain exactly that phrase without breaking down the words. For example, “How to write an assignment” and How to write an assignment brings in slightly different search results. Boolean search operators are common amongst most search engines.

Use the advanced search tools

The advanced search tools on Google allow you to refine your results according to file type, region, last update and other factors. To find the Advanced Search Tools, click on 'Settings' on Google’s homepage in the bottom right-hand corner and select ‘Advanced Search’. If you are not using Google, seek out if the search engine you’re using has a similar tool.

Pop your filter bubble

To "pop" your filter bubble there are few easy tricks you can do, including regularly deleting your browser history and cookies and clicking on random pages which will make it difficult for search engines like Google to pigeon hole you. Another option is to use incognito mode in your browser, or Duck Duck Go.

Search engines available (other than Google)

You do not always have to use Google to find information. There are lots of search engines out there that are focused on different topics.

Type of ResultsBest Search Engine Alternatives
Academic materials search
Looking for journal articles or conference papers?
Google Scholar
Non-personalized search results
Don’t want results based on your web activities?
Copyright free images
Need media content that can be reused and worked upon?
CC Search
Social media analysis
Want to know what‘s on social media about the topic you are researching?
Social Searcher
Computational or statistical data
Want to know your current IP address, do a complicated math equation, or compare two things?
Wolfram Alpha
Reverse image search engines
Want to know the original website an image was posted on or how many times it appeared online?
Tin Eye
3D image search engines
Want to print a 3D model of an image at the UOW library?
Princeton University 3D Model Search Engine
Compare all search engine results
Want to get results from various search engines on one page?


Google 2010, Search Engine Optimization Guide, Google, viewed 8 December,